"Yarrow belongs to the Achillea family and its medicinal qualities are meant to date back to Achilles of the Trojan War, who was taught how to use it by a magical centaur."
I'm standing in a shipping container in the Bootyard, a community workspace in Dalston, East London. As George Fredenham, one half of pub-owning, hunter-gatherer duo The Foragers picks at a mixed seed loaf from the nearby Dusty Knuckle Bakery, partner Richard Osmond orates the Greek myth, which states that Achilles painted himself with a yarrow ointment to become invulnerable to arrows. Obviously, the numpty forgot about his heel.
Whether you believe the magical centaur tale or not, yarrow's origins certainly point to its anaesthetic and antiseptic qualities. Traditionally, the plant was used on the battlefield to pack wounds.
The anaesthetic point is proven when Osmond asks me to chew on a handful of yarrow leaves—they taste sweet and medicinal—and then hold them in the corner of my mouth, between my lip and gum, like a schoolboy hiding his Juicy Fruit from a teacher.
Two minutes later and my mouth is numb. It's not quite Billy Crystal in the Analyse That sushi scene but I find myself slurring slightly—that feeling you get after you've had a filling at the dentist.
Yarrow's uses in alternative medicine are fairly well documented. The Native Americans chewed on the stalks to combat colds and digested it for stomach ailments. Brewed in a tea, yarrow has been said to induce menstruation and in skin lotions, it can help relieve dry skin. It's even been known to help cure bleeding hemorrhoids.
"Back in the days of original herbal medicine, there was much less of a distinction between drugs and food," Osmond says, pouring me yarrow tea into a paper cup. "There wasn't such a hard and fast line between the physiological and psychological or psychosomatic effects of a plant."
Today, we're putting those psychological credentials to the test although when it comes to yarrow, they are somewhat shrouded in mystery.
"There's not a consensus on what yarrow does mentally," Osmond says. "But I've read reports of people using it with alcohol to take away the negative effects and stimulate social conversation. I've also read something someone wrote saying it made him a more creative banjo player."
I briefly scan the shadowy container for any sign of a musical instrument. Nothing—just a scythe languidly resting against the wall and shelves lined with foraged absinthe.
To find out if yarrow eliminates the sluggish and clumsy aspect of alcohol in place of a sharper, more attuned drunkenness, we're interchanging sips of yarrow tea with slugs of The Foragers "Mars Silvanus" liqueur.
Named after "the classical god of the forest," it's a jet black cocktail of wild aromatic and bitter herbs, roots, and bark diluted with homemade wild cherry syrup that "sweetens it up and brings a fruitiness to the flavour." Osmond serves it from a thick plastic vat covered in tarpaulin.
It tastes like the dregs of a Slush Puppy—in a good way—and mixed with the endless cups of yarrow tea, it all feels rather stimulating. As the Mars Silvanus flows, the yarrow seems to shave the edge off the alcohol, keeping things a little clearer—almost like Mother Nature's coke.
Meanwhile, Fredenham is knocking up a pesto with the yarrow, a solitary blackberry, a squeeze of lemon, some salt, and a swig of their homemade Douglas fir syrup. It's a sweet mulch, balanced out by yarrow.
It's certainly a curious little leaf. On its own, the slightly umami and medicinal flavour is overpowering but when combined with something else it acts as a controlling element. Fredenham says this is the way he uses the bitter plant in his dishes.
"You've got to combine bitterness with other items. Endive with apple or walnut for example," he explains. "So you wouldn't eat a whole bowl of yarrow but we include it in our wild salad, as it's one of the more bitter plants."
The Foragers' wild salad (dandelion, three-cornered leek, chickweed, yarrow, and dead nettle) is often served alongside their "Forager's Board." A spread served at the end of their foraging walks back in their pub in St Albans, that includes mushroom powder, pickled walnuts, mixed beans, and gin-cured salmon.
"When we do the walks, this is how we demonstrate all the different ways you can use the wild [produce] in the food and show that it tastes good," Fredenham says. "The foragers board is our way of saying, 'This is what're we're all about.'"
Minutes later and we're doing I Ching the traditional way, using sticks of yarrow, which would have numbed the hands of Chinese soothsayers, endowing the plant with a magical quality.
This is what The Foragers are also all about: exploring a plant's psychotropic or folkloristic potential as well as its culinary one.
"We talk about all the magical centaurs and that stuff but you build your own folklore too," Osmond says, as he pulls on the camouflage helmet and dishes out the sticks. "Not all folklore is medieval."
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